--The Washington Post Book World
"MUKHERJEE IS FEARLESS . . . DARING AND WITTY . . . Take the wild ride with Debby DiMartino from Albany to San Francisco, from lost child to masked avenger."
--The Boston Globe
"POWERFULLY WRITTEN . . . Debby has no memory of her birth parents. All she knows is that she was born in a remote Indian village, the daughter of a hippie back-packing mother and a mysterious Eurasian father, both of whom have disappeared almost without a trace. . . . Her quest for her biological parents turns into an obsession. . . . Leave It to Me . . . shows Mukherjee at the peak of her craft. . . . Mixing the Greek myth of Electra with the Indian myth of Devi, she sends Devi/Debby careening down on the Bay Area like an elemental force of vengeance."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"DEVI IS A BRILLIANT CREATION--hilarious, horribly knowing and even more horribly oblivious--through whom Bharati Mukherjee, with characteristic and shameless ingenuity, is laying claim to speak for an America that isn't 'other' at all."
--The New York Times Book Review
"STUNNING . . . An astute, ironic, and merciless insight into an aberrant version of the American dream."
--Publishers Weekly (starred review)
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.63(d)|
Read an Excerpt
In Devigaon, a village a full day's bus ride into desert country west of Delhi, old Hari tells of times before the "long ago" of fairy tale, when celestials battled demons and the Cosmic Spirit revealed itself in surprising forms to devotees. The story that children beg him to repeat at twilight--that smoky quarter hour most full of menace--is of Devi, the eight-armed, flame-bright, lion-riding dispenser of Divine Justice. They know that the Cosmic Spirit (assuming the appearance of gods) continually makes, unmakes and remakes the world they live in. They know that it also created goddess Devi and endowed her with the will to save and the strength to kill, and that it, charged her with the mission of slaying the Buffalo Demon who had usurped the throne in the kingdom of heavenly beings.
And in this village, named after the serene slaughterer of a demon king, the children already know the story's ending. Before twilight blackens, Devi will blow the conchshell call, and brandish in her many arms a lasso, a trident, a fire-tipped spear, a demon-splitting disc, a bow and arrows, a death-dealing staff, a thunder-sparking axe, a pitcher of water and a necklace of blessed beads, and will lead her soldiers on lionback. The Buffalo Demon, inheritor of the brute strength and physical appearance of his buffalo mother and the deceit and rage of his demon father, cunning, and magical powers, will vanquish her men. Some of Devi's soldiers the Buffalo Demon will gore to death; others he will stomp, still more fell with the tempest blasts of his panting breath, and lacerate with the whip-crack of his tail. Then he'll let loose the full ferocity of his bestial hate on the Earth itself. With his hooves, the Buffalo Demon will scour canyon-deep trenches; with his horns, he will shred the sky and scoop out mounds of soil as high as mountains; with his tail, he will churn the calm waves of the ocean into fatal hurricanes. And just as he is about to declare himself destroyer of gods and goddesses, Devi will muster the full powers of vengeance. She will fling her lasso around the demon neck, pierce, strike and slash the demon flesh, pin that demon bulk to the ground with her foot and cut off the usurper's buffalo-head.
While the children, comforted by story, curl into sleep on their bed-pallets, the Cosmic Spirit will smile on its daughter-goddess, then go back to creating, preserving, breaking and re-creating the cosmos as always.
And Devi? The Earth Mother and Warrior Goddess wipes demon blood off weapons and puts them away for the next time they are needed.
I can almost touch the diamond-hard light of stars and the silky slipperiness of leaves, almost taste smoke softer than clouds and sweeter than memory, almost feel God's breath burn off my sins.
What have I done but what my mothers did? The one who gave me birth, and the one I am just beginning to claim. Like them, I took a god of a special time and place as my guide.
My mothers, luminous as dewdrops in downlight, weightless as the wings of a newborn dragonfly, float towards me from the place where I was born. I have no clear memory of my birthplace, only of the whiteness of its sun, the harshness of its hills, the raspy moan of its desert winds, the desperate suddenness of its twilight: these I see like the pattern of veins on the insides of my eyelids.
I tell myself I must have been left unattended in the sun. Maybe the sand-yellow sun was low in the morning sky and whichever Gray Sister was charged with caring for me had been detained in the fields as the sun mounted. I don't want to believe it was an overcrowded orphanage's scheme to rid itself of a bastard half American. One murder attempt is enough. Some days while shoveling snow off the stoop in Schenectady, I have smelled heady hibiscus-scented breezes; I have felt tropical heat and humidity.
Tonight, in the cabin of this houseboat off Sausalito as curtains of flame dance in the distance and a million flash-bulbs burn and fizzle, and I sit with the head of a lover on my lap, the ferrous taste of fear invades me as though my whole body were tongue.
For all official purposes, like social security cards and unemployment benefits, I am, or was, Debby DiMartino, a fun-loving twenty-three-year-old American girl. I was adopted into a decent Italian-American family in the Hudson Valley. That's the upside of adoption. And believe me, I've approached this situation, my situation, from every angle. The downside is knowing that the other two I owe my short life to were lousy people who'd considered me lousier still and who'd left me to be sniffed at by wild dogs, like a carcass in the mangy shade.
The upside and the downside of being recyclable trash don't quite balance. Debby DiMartino is a lie. Whoever my parents intended for me to be never existed. That unclaimable part of myself is what intrigues me, the part that came to life in a desert village and had the name Baby Clear Water Iris-Daughter until it was christened in a Catholic orphanage. That's the part I want to remember. But there's another part I try to keep secret, the part that sings to moons and dances with stars. With everything I've done, I've tried to find a balance. It's just that Debby DiMartino has no weight, no substance. I had to toss her out.
Cherchez le garcon. There was a boy, back when I was a stubby little thirteen-year-old. He was a twenty-two-year-old graduate student at Syracuse. I had no way of knowing there'd be a growth spurt--I was adopted--I only had my sister Angie to go by, which meant I had nothing to look forward to but getting fat and a puberty that would be a settling down, and out, and not a shooting up.
Wyatt was a lanky, crinkly-blond longhair (he had the first male ponytail I'd ever seen) getting a master's in social work, and I was his project. He had that low, slow, soft voice that just cries out sex, sex, sex! and deep brown eyes that bathed you with attention without ever blinking. The voice, the eyes, they burned at a very low flame, they never flared, but they consumed me just the same. He also had my police file, and he had the power if he ever wanted to use it to fuck up my future, all of which made our relationship an exciting kind of power trip.
Celia Montoya and I used to hang out at the mall, and one day (actually, many days) the temptation got too much and we "liberated" a little candy, some tapes, some perfume and panties--no problem--then we pushed our luck at Radio Shack since nothing was cooler that year than a portable phone. I should have figured out Radio Shack of all places would have some kind of electronic alarm. And the total value of the loot was over a hundred dollars, which automatically sent us to court and gave us a police record, and some sort of correction.
Pappy had connections in court and with the police. Celia had connections, too, but all the wrong kind, and site was out of school and in a facility for girls two days after her appeal. I never saw her again. Me, I got Wyatt, and a chance to erase my record. The penalty was I would do some service, I would read some books and write something about them, I'd stay in school and improve my grades, and I'd talk my problems out in a circle of troubled girls, as we were called, led by Wyatt. I got to stay in school and no one knew about the Circle, or Wyatt.
Celia would never have made it, she would have laughed in his face, or she would have stared at the floor. A couple of other girls couldn't take it either and said Wyatt's voice drove them to drugs and housebreaking. Wyatt was the first to ask me about adoption, what I knew, what I remembered. He put a lot of stress on it, and I know it would have upset Pappy if he'd known that rehabilitation meant bringing up feelings I didn't know I had.
"I've been reading your file, Debby," Wyatt'd say, once we were out of the Circle. "How did the DiMartinos come to adopt you?"
I'd never asked, and they'd never told. Lawyers, they always said, but it had to have started with the Church, all those little pledge envelopes for missions in Asia that Mama still fills out. I knew only that they'd found me in an orphanage run by Gray Nuns.
"You're not even interested?"
"I always figured it was fate."
"Schenectady was fate?"
Wyatt took me out to the animal shelter. It was where he'd worked on weekends and high school summers. It was the place that had formed his philosophy of life. It was the only place where the Ultimates sat side by side. "Love and Death," he said. "Kindness and Killing." He thought he could be the catcher in the pound; everything depended on his keeping his orphans clean enough, making them just a little more appealing, giving them cutesy names like Barbra, walking them and running them in the park. My family always called the animal shelter the pound, and I thought of it, if I thought of it at all, as an alternate lodging between loving homes. You don't usually visualize the dog pound as the palace of love. No one ever told me they gassed puppies and kitties.
"Cuteness is all that counts," Wyatt said. "You have a bad day, you wake up with a dry nose, with dull eyes, you take a nap, you scratch your fleas--it's your life."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying you've got a chance, don't blow it. You might never have made it out of that orphanage. Someone must have seen something."
And what could they have seen in a baby girl whose unnamed mother identified herself as Clear Water Iris-Daughter, and whose father, also unnamed, was called Asian National in the adoption papers? The nuns weren't interested in my origins, they didn't care about filling in the gaps of my life; they were into good works. It was the mid-seventies and I was just a garbage sack thrown out on the hippie trail.
There's no passion in the world like that of a thirteen-year-old girl; she'll do anything for love, or what seems like love. She'll interpret anything as a little sign, she'll believe anything he says, she'll do anything to prove herself worthy of his notice. And then the time will come when site begins to feel her own power. I was only thirteen, but I was a knowing thirteen when I didn't want to hide it, and mellow-voiced Wyatt was the first man I showed it to.
Our little Circle meetings grew shorter and shorter, our trips in the country longer and longer. There were motels in the afternoon, flowery pastures, canoe trips. I could ruin him if I wanted, and he knew it. He shared his stash (which I knew he had), and before long he was praising my orphan's maturity, the integrity of shoplifting in a consumer society and of course saying that I was older than my age (at least three years for his sake, I hoped).
Wyatt signed off on my parole, then dropped out of grad school. I had been a bad influence on him, he said. He decided to go to California and work for the Sierra Club or become a nature photographer. Human emotions were too difficult. But he left me with the most important prediction of my life, something that got me through high school and college, and even helps today. I was just a small, dark thing, and he said, "You know, Debby, I can tell you're going to be tall and beautiful very soon, and someday you're going to be rich and powerful." He thought he had everything to do with it.
After Wyatt left, I convinced myself that I was lucky to be all orphan. Front the families I'd been given, I'd scavenge the traits I needed and dump the rest. If a person is given lives to live instead of just one life (Mama's favorite soap), especially lives she hasn't even touched, she'll be far better off for it. Once in a junior high English class, on assignment, when the other girls were composing little rhymed Hallmark verses about love, I raged in rhyming couplets against whole peoples who brawled inside me. The poem shocked me. It throbbed with pains I had no right to feel. That was the first time I'd really cut loose.
Mr. Bullock said, "Debby, that's deep," and he forced me to read the poem out loud in class. And the kids said, "Jeezus, it could be, like, a song, Debby!," which was their highest compliment. Then Mr. Bullock asked, "Have you read Sylvia Plath, Debby?" and I said I didn't know any of the senior high girls, and he laughed. "Then you're a natural poetic talent, Debby," which sounded to me as thrilling as a new zit on the nose. He invited me to join all after-school geek club. I attended twice, but its members were weird and I could feel how easy it would be to weird out too.
Until that poem, I'd been Debby DiMartino, second daughter of Manfred and Serena DiMartino, hardworking, religious parents. In junior high, I'd looked enough like my sister Angie to pass for a real DiMartino, and I expected to ripen and coarsen early, like Mama and like Angie. But I didn't thicken like Angie did, and by my senior year, I was the tallest one in the family, including Pappy. I stayed thin, clear-skinned, dark-haired, amazed at the assertiveness of my body. The gym teacher encouraged me to think volleyball scholarships, and Angie nagged at me to try out mail-order-catalog modeling. My senior portrait was just the kind of thing that you find in People magazine at the Price Chopper, one of those bad-hair, ugly-duckling pictures of some high school cheerleader gone bad or murdered or of some eventually famous movie star.
My junior-year growth spurt ended a few months too early, leaving me a shade below five-nine. I was a tall girl in a small school, a beautiful girl in a plain family, an exotic girl in a very American town. I'd always had this throaty whisper of a voice, couldn't raise it above a satiny purr, in a family of choir singers and a town of chirpy sopranos. But I wasn't tall, beautiful or exotic enough to trust any of it, and so I made up my mind to find out if I was someone special or just another misfit. I didn't write another poem, but I began to understand about mugged identities. There was something to nature over nurture, and to the tyranny of genes. But you pay for all the knowledge you've gained. How could I explain to a Schenectady DiMartino that destiny's the bully you can't outpunch or outsmart? That the Gray Nuns, Mama, Pappy, Angie, Mr. Bullock, Wyatt, the junior high geeks and creeps I've blown off fit into the Big Picture? I need to believe in the bigger picture. Most orphans do.
Who are you when you don't have a birth certificate, only a poorly typed, creased affidavit sworn out by a nun who signs herself Sister Madeleine, Gray Sisters of Charity? And that name? No mother's name, no fathers name, just Baby Clear Water Iris-Daughter meticulously copied out, taking up two full lines, when Father and Mother with long spaces after them are just ink flecks of nonexistence. What are you when you have nightmares and fantasies instead of dates and statistics? And, in place of memory, impressions of white-hot sky and burnt-black leaves? Nothing to keep you on the straight and narrow except star bursts of longing?
We thought Mr. Bullock was giving us a routine assignment, but what if a junior high English teacher with hair in his ears is an agent of destiny? He'd made us read a Robert Frost poem about a bird flying off a snow-dusted bough. "The Muse," he'd encouraged us, "notices the humblest object and the tritest movement and turns them into the gold of passion and poesy."
Mr. Bullock said he wanted for us to write about something we knew, something we knew so well that we didn't see it anymore. And so I wrote about the lacy, summertime shadows of the squat oak that Grandpa DiMartino had planted in the backyard to celebrate his escape from the Bronx--so the family story goes--the day he got the deed to the Schenectady house, and that set me thinking that the grandpa who'd planted that oak and landscaped the garden and put in the lily pond was Angie's grandpa and not mine after all. That made me hear tiny gypsy moth jaws on the tender skin of stalks, and that made me remember other leaf patterns against other horizons. I wrote another about the dogs I'd seen at the pound, pretending that I was alone and that I was a dog myself. Take me, love me, shelter me, my barking said. I felt more deeply than Debby'd ever dared let herself feel. Words ribboned out of me. And when the assignment was done, I felt cheated of places I couldn't draw and of parents I didn't miss. I blamed the poem for robbing me of what I'd never owned. It was as if a psychic with a 900 number had said to me through the poem, You're just on loan to the DiMartinos. Treat them nice, pay your rent, but keep your bags packed.
Back then, in Schenectady, I waited for the call. Not to be a model or a poet, which was to be not extraordinary enough. The call would be to something more special, to satisfy the monstrous cravings of other Debbys hiding inside. I didn't envy Angie as I helped her into the Greyhound bound for Manhattan and her modest transformation of a Hudson Valley accent, hair color, clothes, muscle tone and skin. I knew by then that there was a life beyond the state lines waiting for me to slip into. Star Quality just plays taller and thinner and younger than it really is; second bananas just look older and fatter than they really are. All I'd have to do was be beautiful, be available, and my other life, my real life, would find me.
Reading Group Guide
Reader's Guide copyright © 1998 by The Ballantine Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc.
1. What attitude does Leave It to Me take toward adoption? How do you feel when Faustine/Debby/Devi abandons the DiMartinos so early in the novel?
2. When Debby starts her search for her "other life, [her] real life," Serena DiMartino tells her daughter that her biological father had a police record. Debby recognizes that a police record will help her find her bio-parents:
"That's a break for me, Mama. If they had a police record, that's something to go on."
"Being a criminal is a break? What kind of talk is that?"
"Just kidding, Mama. You brought me up to be decent."
The dialogue suggests that Debby's search for her bio-parents might prove to be "indecent." Does it? How does Debby feel about abandoning stable Schenectady society to embrace the Haight's counterculture? How do you feel about it?
3. In the first conversation between Ham and Devi, Ham remarks, "You have to come up with just the right name....Names count." In what ways do names count in Leave It to Me? Why are names constantly being changed? mispronounced? misunderstood? Originally named Faustine "after a typhoon," Debby renames herself after a Hindu goddess, Devi. Why? What impact does changing her name have on her identity?
4. Despite this interest in her own name, Devi seems to seek out employment in which her name and identity simply don't matter. First, she works as a telemarketer for Frankie Fong where she "tried out thirty personas" nightly. Later, she works for Jess DuPree's Leave It to Me knowing that "A ME doesn't have personal problems. A ME doesn't have a life." Why does Devi want these kinds of jobs? Does this work bring her closer to or drive her farther away from discovering her real identity, her real "me"?
5. Why is the novel titled Leave It to Me? What is left up to Devi to accomplish? Does she accomplish what she needs to?
6. When Devi reveals to Frankie Fong how little she knows about herself, she makes a statement intended for Frankie, but heard only by the reader: "I want you to know that we've both invented ourselves." What does Devi mean? Later in their relationship, Frankie actually turns Devi into a secretary, while Devi recognizes that she has "made [Frankie] up out of needs I didn't know I had." Is identity always "invented"? What are the dangers of inventing identity, one's own or someone else's?
7. Devi tries to leave her Schenectady past behind when she enters California. However, the individuals she meets seem vaguely familiar. Gabe, a neighbor, "looked like Wyatt, and kind of talked like Wyatt, too." Devi immediately recognizes that Ham Cohan's film series is a "rip-off of Flash's Boss Tong of Hong Kong." Is Gabe a second Wyatt? Is Ham a second Flash? Is Devi able to abandon her past, or is this entrance into California a reincarnation not only of herself, but of her past as well?
8. While working at Leave It to Me, Devi encounters several individuals who, unlike Frankie, seem to know exactly who they are. Devi's describes Stark Swann as a man who is comfortably "the center of his universe." Devi seduces and drugs Stark in order to carve "an endearment on his left buttock: CW. My homage to my neighborhood graffitiste, Cee-Double-You." "CW" expresses Devi's critique of Swann's tendency to see (Cee) only a reflection of himself (Double-You) in everyone he meets. She insists that her revenge is an act of the "real women." What does she mean by "real women"? Does Devi achieve real woman status in the novel? Does this mean that she does in fact have an identity that cannot be manipulated by someone else?
9. Devi hires Fred Pointer to point the way to her parents. The evidence that piles up to prove that her parents are Jess DuPree and Romeo Hawk seems officially convincing: conversation transcripts, death notices, court records, a photograph, passports. Romeo claims his daughter immediately. Jess, however, denies her relationship to Devi to the novel's end. Is Devi ever able to feel certain about her parentage? Are you?
10. "When you inherit nothing, you are entitled to everything: that's the Devi Dee philosophy." Devi's search for her identity reveals remarkable similarities between herself and her bio-parents. Devi and Jess both seduce the same man, work at the same job, and drug inconvenient lovers with Mandrax. Devi and Romeo wield the same cleaver to violent ends. Are these similarities a result of Devi's inheritance or her entitlement? Is she responsible for her actions? Do you excuse her because of her parentage, because of the actions of her bio-parents, or not at all?
11. Sex complicates Devi's relationships with her bio-parents. What impact does the fact that Jess and Devi share a lover have upon Devi's attempts to relate to Jess as a mother? Why does her bio-father, Romeo, enter Devi's life dressed as a woman? Why does he undress "with the taunting efficiency of a professional stripper" to reveal to his daughter that he is actually a man?
12. Devi believes that her search for her own identity was "started" by a poem. She discovers her bio-Dad by reading "poetic pensees," and believes that she hears the story of her conception while listening to Jess quote an Emily Dickinson verse: "My beginning....I've just heard my beginning." Later Devi realizes that her life reflects a "romance novel off a rack" more than an Emily Dickinson poem. Still, her identity seems to reflect literary productions: poems, romances, movies. How does Devi discover her identity through literature? Do you think of Devi as a real person or as a literary creation--a myth/fantasy?
13. In the prologue of Leave It to Me old Hari tells the children a bedtime story in which the Hindu goddess Devi slays the Buffalo Demon. Despite the disturbing violence of old Hari's tale, the children are "comforted by story" and "curl into sleep." They aren't troubled by the violence because they "already know the story's ending," and because it is story and not reality. The novel is just as violent as the prologue. Are you troubled by the violence of the novel, or does it leave you, like the children, comforted? In what ways does the violent prologue foreshadow the novel?
14. Why does Leave It to Me include a catalogue of acts of violence, seemingly unrelated to the story, that reads as realistically as a newspaper?
15. In the promotional material that introduces Devi to Romeo Hawk, Devi discovers a potent one-liner: "Destruction is creation's necessary prelude." What does this mean? Does the violence in Leave It to Me lead to creation?
16. Devi travels to Berkeley to find her bio-parents, but once she arrives she realizes that she can't enter "that Berkeley" in which Ham and Jess live. Devi suggests that it is the Vietnam War that separates "that Berkeley" from the place she visits: "Vietnam wasn't a war; it was a divide. On one side, the self-involved idealists; on the other, we the napalm-scarred kids"? How does the war shape Devi's experiences? Do the war veterans--Loco Larry, Pete Cuvo, Chuck Stanko--act in ways that she can or can't understand? Why does she ally herself with the napalm-scarred kids? Do her actions demonstrate this alliance?
17. Ham's houseboat is called Last Chance. What last chance does it represent? Does Devi lose this last chance or take advantage of it at the conclusion of the novel?
18. Only the conclusion reveals that the novel begins exactly where it ends: "in the cabin of this houseboat off Sausilito as curtains of flame dance in the distance and a million flash-bulbs burn and fizzle, and I sit with the head of a lover on my lap." Why does the novel begin at its ending? How does this impact the way you think about Devi's experience?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This story had me in its thrall from the beginning. Happy story, it is not. Engaging and memorable, it is.